New Year’s Eve is the time to redress past regrets and to make future resolutions; the time when traditions are preserved, even as change is embraced; the time when, Janus-like, we look backwards and forwards simultaneously; the time when it’s out with the old and in with the new. It is also when the events of Ben Wheatley‘s latest feature unfold. For following a brief prologue in which Colin Burstead (Neil Maskell), his wife Val (Maskell’s actual wife Sura Dohnke), their teenaged daughter Fran (Maskell’s niece Nicole Nettleingham) and infant son (Maskell and Dohnke’s own baby) set out from their suburban home, the film’s events are almost exclusively confined to the single – if too grand to be truly claustrophobic – location of an opulent manor house in Dorset, hired by Colin for a big family get-together. Apart from one excursion to the local pub and a final scene on the road, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead observes an Aristotelian unity of time and place, like a classical drama. We may hear about past grievances and future aspirations, about betrayals and breakdowns, hopes and dreams, but these characters are very much stuck with each other in the present, and must choose whether to continue celebrating it together or not, as they are reconciled or fall out with one another in an endless disco dance of power.
This comparison to classical drama is not casual, but woven right into the very fabric of Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. For while the working title, Colin You Anus, certainly captures something of the Bursteads’ aggressively straight-talking crudeness, it also involves a pun on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, whose plotting, characters and even dialogue, though much altered, can still be discerned in Wheatley’s film, where we see plays for dominion, vicious confrontations, and characters being exiled – if only to the nearby alehouse. Returning at the invitation of Colin’s sister Gini (Hayley Squires), brother David (Sam Riley), the Burstead black sheep who has lived apart in Germany for five long years with his wife Hannah (Riley’s actual wife Alexandra Maria Lara), upsets the family’s balance of power, even as he reingratiates and reintegrates himself by serenading the Burstead matriarch Sandy (Doon Mackichan) with a song adapted from an actual Shakespearean sonnet. There is the sense that, on precisely this end-of-year occasion for reflection, the Bursteads fit right into a long historical and literary lineage, negotiating the complex clash of love and hate that structures any family, past or present (and probably future too). Their drama is all at once Shakespearean and entirely contemporary. Even the cross-dressing of old Uncle Bertie (Charles Dance) is as much a nod to Elizabethan/Jacobean stage convention as a throughly modern gesture.
So even as the film takes place very much in the here and now, and shows an extended family wrestling with its own internal class struggles and intergenerational conflicts, it is restaging and updating the sort of noble dynastic disputes that have long been a mainstay of England’s theatrical legacy. Colin’s debt-ridden, dipsomaniac father Gordon (Bill Paterson) is expressly – if sarcastically – dubbed the ‘king’, the manor house that Colin has appropriated as his ostentatious domain is repeatedly called the ‘castle’, and the dialogue is peppered with references to the feudal system, fiefdoms and slaves. It is as though the Bursteads, working-class ‘plebs’ taking over the upmarket estate where the ancestors of their penurious host Lord Richard (Richard Glover) once held sway, represent just the latest incarnation of England’s monied gentry. With the transition from one year to the next, there is also a changing of the guard, and a reexamination of Britain’s ever-complex, ever-evolving class system.
With the sole exception of Free Fire (2016), all Wheatley’s films have been set in England, and all have felt like obscure chronicles of Englishness in its many varieties and layered histories. The clan at the centre of Happy New Year, Colin Burstead offers a microcosm of the divisions and dysfunctions, affinities and solidarities, within today’s big, fractious family of England. Young Fran squabbles with her great uncle Jimmy (Peter Ferdinando) – a Benn-ite, Leave-voting electrician – over the damage that the crashing economy will do to her future. Family head Colin uses the politically charged Tory term ‘Big Society’ to refer to the model of family unity that the conflicted Gini seeks, while describing as ‘remoaning’ her belated attempts to backtrack on the chaos that she has unleashed by inviting David back to the fold. In the meantime, Colin is doomed for doing precisely what he has been asked to do, in a family which can maintain its cohesion only so long as it has a villain – or at least a scapegoat – in place.
Filming everything in intimately intrusive handheld shots, DP Laurie Rose positions the viewer as a fly on the wall to this family’s shifting dynamics, and leaps from one character to another in a truly democratic ensemble tragicomedy where everybody – family and friends, gatecrashers and catering staff – gets their grace note and their moment to shine, and no one is ever relegated to the chorus. With its realist focus on kinship, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead probably comes closest to Wheatley’s feature debut Down Terrace (2009) or perhaps to its follow-up Kill List (2011) – the latter also starring Maskell as a deeply flawed patriarch. The difference, though, is the complete absence here of genre elements – even if great tension is created by our awareness of Wheatley’s (and Maskell’s) past filmography, which builds an expectation that ultraviolence might be coming at any moment. Yet with this film Wheatley too is turning over a new leaf, still looking back at a continuous history of family sagas, but also forwards towards a different kind of future for himself (as the first of his scripts since Kill List not written or co-written by Amy Jump). Its setting may be finite, its timing highly particularised, but Happy New Year, Colin Burstead offers an ongoing dialectic on family, power and history that has no real beginning or end – which is to say that this production, though modest, remains highly ambitious, and as timeless as it is also very much of its moment.
Strap: Ben Wheatley’s bittersweet dynastic tragicomedy Happy New Year, Colin Burstead shows an English nobility that is always being Bursteadised.
© Anton Bitel